Shop till the store clerks drop Retailing: There they are, stocking the shelves and bracing for the onslaught of holiday shoppers. It's going to be crazy in the toy stores.

November 27, 1998|By Ken Fuson | Ken Fuson,SUN STAFF

Rookies. They think they know what to expect, but they don't. Not really.

At 6 a.m. today, the doors will swing open at K-B Toys in the Marley Station Mall in Glen Burnie, and Cathy Alexander will learn that the phrase "the day after Thanksgiving is one of the busiest shopping days of the year" is actually a nice way of saying --

ARRRGHHHH!!! Where did all these people come from? Say, Miss, does this need batteries? No, we don't have any Furbys in stock right now. Where's Scattergories? Crying children, frustrated parents, the endless sound of Christmas carols and ,, talking toys. Sorry, no Furbys. Everywhere, people, lines and lines of people. ...

"You don't know about Christmas in retail until you've worked at a toy store," says John Reilly, spokesman for K-B Toys, which has 1,300 stores. (Some are spelled Kay-Bee.)

Alexander has heard the horror stories. One year, the tale goes, the line of customers stretched through the store and out into the mall.

"I really don't know what to expect," she says.

How could she? Alexander, 21, is one of thousands of part-time seasonal workers stuck for the first time on the front lines of the Christmas shopping season. And today is D-Day.

"I can't wait," says Leslie Currier, 24, manager of the toy store. "I'm so excited. It's going to be so busy. I really can't wait. There'll be stuff flying out of the store."

Listen to her. The voice, so chipper. The eyes, so wide. The expectations, so high. That's right, another rookie. Currier has worked in the mall before, but never in a toy store, and never as the manager.

She'll arrive for work today at 4: 30, as in 4: 30 a.m. "I probably

won't be able to sleep," she says. "I'll probably be too afraid I will oversleep."

Other retailers are just as edgy. Christmas is make-it-or-break-it time. And the Friday-after-Thanksgiving often serves as a harbinger for the entire shopping season.

This year, though, those retailers aren't just worried about attracting shoppers. They've been busy attracting enough workers to wait on those shoppers. A low unemployment rate -- 4.3 percent in Maryland -- has made temporary workers like Cathy Alexander more popular than ever.

"We have experienced difficulty in some areas," says Gerry Murray, vice president of human resources for K-B Toys, which ** adds 18,000 workers for the holiday season. "But I have found over the years that people want to work in toy stores over Christmas."

Well, of course. Why wouldn't you want to work in a store where Douglas Fir, the singing Christmas tree, belts out tunes all day, and where children with runny noses scream because they want the new Mortal Kombat game right now, the heck with waiting for Santa Claus, and where teen-agers wander in to see if the price of Nintendo 64 has somehow miraculously dropped to a level they can afford?

"People just have an idea that a toy store would be a fun place to work," Murray says.

Alexander certainly did. She was strolling the mall a few weeks ago when she wandered in the toy store and asked the people there if they were hiring.

"I thought it would be cool," she says.

This is what's known in the retailing business as a gift. Most stores recruit workers with all sorts of gimmicks. At K-B, employees wore shirts that said, "Elves Wanted." Seasonal workers are given 25 percent off on their purchases. Some stores offer cash bonuses. Everything from blimps to billboards is used to get attention.

"We do try to find new ways to be aggressive to attract people," Murray says.

At the Marley Station Mall store, a staff of 32, about triple the number of workers in, say, August, are ready for action. Manager Currier says she found the extra help quickly, unlike other stores in the Washington-Baltimore area.

"I really didn't have a problem at all," she says. "We get lots of high school students, and extra income is always helpful."

New workers receive two days of training, then they are dispatched to the land of Barbie, Monster Trucks and Chuck My Talking Truck. And don't forget Furby, this year's must-have toy (Reilly expects most K-B stores to have Furbys in stock today, but shoppers beware).

"There's so many toys in this store I don't know half of them," she says.

Alexander has tried other jobs -- bar waitress, housecleaner, roast beef sandwich server at Arby's. A single mother, she expects to take full advantage of her 25 percent employee discount from K-B Toys when shopping for son Tony, 3.

"I like this the best because it doesn't feel like you're working when you're here," she says. "It's fun. I get paid for having fun.

"Actually, I thought it was going to be a headachy job. But I haven't had any headaches yet."

Rookies. She'll learn soon enough.

Pub Date: 11/27/98

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